I love zoos, and I love that there have been more and more animal encounters being offered at zoos and aquariums across the country. From feeding giraffes and petting sloths, being stepped on by a red panda, or holding a baby kangaroo, I LOVE these animal encounters. The more awesome animal encounters I have, the more I want so when I saw you could get in the water with a beluga whale encounter at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, I knew I had to try!
It was even better than I hoped! There was a small group, we got plenty of chances to interact with more than one whale, and we got awesome photos. We got to touch and pet the whales, give them treats, give them a couple of training commands, and more! I would do it again in a heartbeat!
To start the encounter, we were brought to a classroom. There were several employees who helped us get our waders on and told stories about the whales. Each of the currently 8 whales at the Shedd has its own unique personality. Staff regaled us with stories about 2,000 lb Beethoven stealing all 5 toys while little baby Atlas looked on and schemed a way to get one of them to play with. The matriarch of the pod ended up grabbing a toy and though Beethoven didn’t want to share he wasn’t going to argue with the older whale. Then, of course, she gave it to Atlas!
There are a couple of videos they show that tell you about some of the individual whales, but the stories from the staff were more vivid and interesting. They go over a few rules, and you’re ready to roll.
The trainers themselves come in right before you are about to get into the water. They walk you in front of the beluga pool (here is a chance to wave to loved ones), and then without much ado, you get to walk down the stairs into the pool!
When we went in there were three whales and three trainers in the pool with us. We got to interact with Bella and at our trainer’s guidance, we fed her fish, gave her commands for tricks, and got to pet her melon (that’s the head), tail, and even her tongue!
Our trainer then asked Bella and the young whale, Atlas, to switch. Baby Atlas was born in 2020, and at 3 years old he is “only” 700lbs. That’s compared to the largest whale which is 2,300 lbs. Atlas was ADORABLE! He is young enough that he is still gray instead of the adult white, and it was so amazing to be so close to him.
Finally, they asked us if anyone wanted to get splashed by a Beluga Whale. I mean, I’m here, and may never get this chance again so I had to say yes! Holy moly, that whale can fit a lot of icy cold water in her mouth! If you couldn’t tell by the pictures, I loved it.
Booking Tickets for the Beluga Encounter
You can book this encounter at the Shedd’s website. They usually only open tickets out a month or two and currently they primarily offer Saturdays and a few Sundays. They tend to open more tickets around holidays.
The tickets are $200 per person, regardless of age. Participants must be at least 5 feet tall. The ticket includes your general admission pass as well, so arrive early or stay late to check out all the other amazing stuff at the Shedd. You have to check in 15 minutes prior to your experience time. The program lasts just over an hour. Pack dry clothes! They told you that, and I didn’t believe them, but I’m telling you, it’s worth it.
You will have to leave your stuff behind when you go into the pool. There is a classroom and a small locker with a lock included. No phones or jewelry was allowed during the encounter. The location of the experience is in the “tunnel” part of the beluga pool, so family and friends won’t get to watch. Either will the hundreds of visitors filing by, so that is probably a plus. You are not allowed to take your own pictures, but they have a professional photographer taking pictures. I thought he did a great job, though I wish he would have taken more! For a reasonable $30, you get digital access to all the photos of you, which seems like a pretty good deal. If you are with a group, it is $10 extra for each additional person, so a total of $40 for two people, $50 for three people, etc.
You will be provided with chest-high waders that keep you dry unless you agree to be splashed by the whale. The belugas are arctic animals, so whether you stay dry or not, the water is cold. If you are prone to being cold, wear warm leggings/sweats. I was in jeans and a T-shirt and felt fine. One girl in our group wore a dress, and she made it work but wished she had pants. The waders are a little awkward to walk in, but the employees give you tips, and you have plenty of time to walk slow.
The Shedd doesn’t guarantee anything regarding what happens during the encounter as it all depends on how the belugas are feeling.
Other Shedd Animal Encounters
The employees told us the Beluga Whale encounter was the most interactive, so I was pumped that this was the one I chose. The employees and some visitors who had done other encounters at Shedd had lots of good things to say about the other animal encounters. All the following encounters are for 6-year-olds and over and without a height requirement. The only question I have is, which encounter should I do next?
The Shedd Aquarium offers even more activities! Check out this page for details on scout badges for grades 2-5, summer camps for kids, or educational classes for teens and college students. They even have virtual events and slumber parties.
Things to see with General Admission
Just because you don’t pay extra doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of other cool stuff. Find the map here. You can also get the Shedd app for the day. Overall, the website is extremely well done and has tons of helpful information.
I always love the stingray touch tanks, and for some reason, that experience never gets old. There is also a sea star touch and a sturgeon touch tank. My kids hadn’t seen dolphins before, so that was also a big hit. My husband and I loved checking out the octopus. I think that might have been the first one I have seen in person. The wild reef shark tunnel is fun to check out. The sea otters are always fun to watch, swim and play. They also have piranhas, eels, and plenty of fish.
For kids, there is a penguin playground for them to run around on. There is also a model of a submarine near the underground Beluga whale pool that can keep them busy for a while.
There are free shows in the amphitheater. The animal spotlight is a fun way to get to know one of the amazing animals in the aquarium. We went to one featuring a penguin and another featuring dolphins. (wow, they can jump so high!) Check out the monthly calendar here. For an extra $5 per person, you can watch one of their 4D movies.
For the remainder of 2023 and part of 2024, the Shedd is undergoing a massive remodel project. The large cylindrical tank was closed as of October of 2023, but once it opens again, be sure to see it.
Other Chicago Activities
We came to Chicago specifically for the Beluga Whale encounter, but of course, the city has so much more to offer. There is a huge playground called the Maggie Daley Park as well as the Cloud Gate, aka the Bean, near the Shedd. If you love animals, check out the free Lincoln Park Zoo and the Peggy Notebaret Nature Museum.
The Field Museum has an entire exhibit on mammals and birds of the world. They are stuffed, so it’s not quite as fun, but they have some interesting displays. If you go to the Field, be sure to check out Sue, the most intact T-Rex fossil ever found. We also liked the biomechanics section, where there was a lot of hands-on stuff. My kids loved watching the video describing different gait patterns in animals and testing their grip strength compared to a gorilla. Here is an interactive map.
The Navy Pier has an amazing children’s museum and some carnival rides in addition to lake views and lots of restaurants. Chicago is known for its amazing Architectural boat tour. To truly experience a skyscraper, check out the Willis Tower Skydeck. If you are doing several of these activities, consider getting the City Pass for big savings.
Have you done any of the encounters? Which one do you want to do? Comment below.